If you haven’t heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule, you’re probably busy doing what people do. Living life on your own terms.
Malcolm Gladwell identified this 10,000 hour maxim in his book, Outliers. The rule has to do with attaining Big Time Success. Based on Anders Ericsson’s analysis of people who reached the top of their fields, Gladwell claims that any of us can reach greatness by practicing tasks relevant to our chosen field for a total of 10,000 hours.
He provides pretty compelling examples including the Beatles, Bill Gates, and Tiger Woods. These guys put in the hours, then rapidly pulled ahead of the competition.
Plenty of other circumstances factor into success but it’s worth taking a closer look at what the 10,000 hour rule means for today’s kids.
The news is good. Those who are homeschooling or attending democratic schools benefit enormously from the 10,000 hour rule, although not in ways you might expect.
First and most obviously, they have more time to explore their interests. They don’t spend hours every day on the school bus, standing in line to change classes, listening to instructions/attendance announcements, doing rote schoolwork, and then completing homework in the evening.
Even highly academic homeschooling families find that a full load of “schoolwork” can be completed in substantially fewer hours than the average school day. That leaves plenty of time to pursue real interests. Long hours every day can be lavished, if a child wishes, on building expertise through direct experience in video game design, creative writing, chemistry, speed skating, cello playing, sculpting, astronomy, cake decorating, computer animation, or any other area.
It’s not difficult for a young person, free from the time constraints of conventional schooling, to spend 10,000 hours in an area of passionate interest. Let’s look at the numbers. The average school year in the U.S. is 180 days (pretty similar in most of the developed world) with an average school day of 6.7 hours according to government figures. So children are unable to pursue their own interests and learn in wider ways for a minimum of 1,206 hours a year.
Even if we don’t count kindergarten, that’s 14,472 hours by the time they’re 18. And we’re not even adding time necessarily spent on travel to and from school, prepping for the school day in the morning, and doing homework after school (although we know these obligations probably add another hour or two each school day).
Sure, school kids engage in all sorts of worthy pursuits in their spare time. But homeschoolers and students in Democratic schools have a lot morespare time. These young people can accumulate the requisite 10,000 hours quite easily by their mid-teens, putting them on the fast lane to Big Time Success in exactly the field that makes them feel most vibrant and alive. If they choose.
But what about the homeschooled kids and students in Democratic schools who don’t have a single all-consuming interest? A girl might like to read sci-fi, go horseback riding, play soccer, and teach the dog tricks. A boy might drift from one pursuit to another, avidly creating his own graphic novel, then becoming passionate about parkour. Should these kids choose one thing in order to accumulate the all-precious 10,000 hours?
Absolutely not. They’re already putting 10,000 hours into the exact skills that more widely define success.
That’s because their daily lives are filled with self-directed and meaningful learning. Of course, depending on the style of homeschooling, it’s obvious that many kids will spend time doing some rote educational tasks. But nothing approaching 15,000 hours. Instead they’re accumulating more useful and accessible wisdom honed by experience. How?
- Thousands of hours spent feeding their own curiosity, becoming well acquainted with the pleasure of finding out more. This develops eager lifetime learners.
- Thousands of hours exploring, creating, building friendships, making mistakes, taking risks and accepting the consequences (what’s ordinarily called play). This develops innovative thinkers.
- Thousands of hours spent shouldering real responsibility and connecting with role models through chores, volunteer work, and spending time with people of all ages. This develops self-worth based on competence and meaning.
- Thousands of hours pursuing interests, in whatever direction they take, building proficiency while fostering a wider appreciation for the interconnections in every field. This develops depth of awareness and comprehension.
- Thousands of hours reading, contemplating, conversing, asking questions and searching for answers, looking at the bigger picture from different angles, and discovering how people they admire handle challenges. This develops maturity and strength of character.
Gladwell reminds us that 20 hours a week for 10 years adds up to 10,000 hours. Filling those hours meaningfully? That’s no problem for self-directed, endlessly curious learners. Chances are, they’ll grow up to redefine success. Who knows what today’s young people, raised to think deeply and freely, can bring to the future?
Photo by John Thomson. Italian street musicians, Street Life in London. 1876.
The 10,000 hour rule—first proposed by a Swedish psychologist and later made famous in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers—states that exceptional expertise requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. The best of the best (the Beatles, Bill Gates) all amassed more than 10,000 hours of practice before rising to the top, Gladwell argued. So greatness is within virtually any person's grasp, so long as they can put in the time to master their skill of choice.
A new meta-analysis, however, indicates that the 10,000 hour rule simply does not exist. As Brain's Idea reports, authors of the new study undertook the largest literature survey on this subject to date, compiling the results of 88 scientific articles representing data from some 11,000 research participants. Practice, they found, on average explains just 12 percent of skill mastery and subsequent success. "In other words the 10,000-Hour rule is nonsense," Brain's Idea writes. "Stop believing in it. Sure, practice is important. But other factors (age? intelligence? talent?) appear to play a bigger role."
While this is the largest study to date to arrive at this conclusion, it's not the first. Soon after Outliers was published, experts began calling foul—including the expert who supposedly coined the rule, Anders Ericsson. As the Guardian pointed out in 2012:
There is nothing magical about the 10,000 figure, as Ericsson said recently, because the best group of musicians had accumulated an average, not a total, of over 10,000 hours by the age of twenty. In the world of classical music it seems that the winners of international competitions are those who have put in something like 25,000 hours of dedicated, solitary practice – that’s three hours of practice every day for more than 20 years.
Ericsson is also on record as emphasising that not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour average. It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement.
So despite the new evidence that the 10,000 rule is bull, like the studies and articles that came before it, that message will likely fall on many deaf ears. The 10,000 hour rule seems to have entered into the common lore about success: it's a nice idea, that hard work will actually pay off. And no peer-reviewed study has so far succeeded in toppling that catchy message.
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